A surprise change to a section of the Texas social work code of conduct opened the door for discrimination against clients on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The state’s social worker association swung into action to reverse it.
A rapid-response campaign led by the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW/TX) last month successfully pushed for the reversal of a surprise change to the state’s social work code of conduct that would have allowed social workers to refuse to serve members of the LGBTQ and disability communities.
In October, the Texas State Board of Social Worker Examiners (TSBSWE) and the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council approved a last-minute request from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office to remove from the Texas social work code of conduct a prohibition on discrimination by state-licensed social workers against clients because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
The request was received just before a scheduled meeting of the board and had not been included in agenda materials. Public comment on the change before the vote was not permitted. The agencies also stripped out nondiscrimination language on disability but left most prohibitions against discrimination based on other characteristics, including a client’s age, gender, race, religion, or political affiliation.
The rule change “not only sent a message that a social worker could discriminate, it would shrink access to services at a time when we need to expand them,” said Will Francis, executive director of the NASW Texas chapter.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that federal protections against employment discrimination based on gender also apply to discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The court did not address contexts other than employment.
According to media reports, TSBSWE board members said the governor requested removing the protections because the code’s nondiscrimination protections went beyond those laid out in the state law that governs how and when the state may discipline social workers.
However, under Texas law, the TSBSWE has “the statutory power to determine the code of conduct, standard of care, and the ethical principles for our profession,” Francis said. “Social workers already have the ability to decline to provide services to a client based on their competencies and training, but they cannot discriminate based on selective personal values.”
NASW/TX acted swiftly to build support condemning the change with a diverse and cohesive coalition of allies. The group issued a statement and advocacy alerts and reached out to the Texas Tribune, which picked up the story. Francis also engaged disability rights and LGBTQ groups to generate coordinated messages and advocacy steps.
Support poured in from other associations and groups inside and outside of the profession, and the effort drew strong bipartisan backing in the Texas legislature. “The big response was: This is government overreach, it’s not OK, and we need to keep those protections in place,” Francis said.
Media coverage, including an article in USAToday, and a trending hashtag on social media played a large part in amplifying the message, he said. NASW/TX also held a press conference and a call-to-action virtual meeting cohosted by a state senator. A Change.org petition garnered nearly 25,000 signatures. Initially skeptical of how effective the Change.org petition would be, Francis said it proved invaluable in referencing the growing support for the cause in advocacy efforts. “It really carried weight,” he said.
The efforts paid off. On October 27, the Texas Behavioral Health Executive Council voted unanimously to restore protections for LGBTQ clients and clients with disabilities to the Texas social workers code of conduct.
Francis praised the results a highly mobilized campaign can yield.
“It’s a huge lift and you need as many hands as you can get. There was not one captain on this ship. It was many people coming together,” he said. “The collective power works.”